The 4 Native Ad Mistakes Publishers Keep Making — And How to Avoid Them

Vanessa King
Published in
8 min readJan 9, 2017


Native advertising is like the handsome rule breaker in teen movies. It’s edgy, it’s mysterious, and nobody knows how to begin enforcing rules on it.

Uneven publisher approaches have earned native advertising a bad reputation. A recent Contently survey found 54% of people have felt deceived by native advertising and 70% of publishers don’t follow FTC guidelines on it.

Even good publishers make bad choices when it comes to native ads. We analyzed four common mistakes and provided fixes to help publishers, advertisers, and readers get the most out of native advertising.

Mistake 1: Narrowing native advertising to only sponsored content.

Native ads are units that blend into a website’s design style guide. Sponsored content is when a publisher partners with a brand to create content that mirrors the publisher’s voice and style.

Consider Buzzfeed, which has become an industry leader in sponsored content. Companies pay big money for Buzzfeed to write branded posts and share them on its website, apps, and social media accounts.

Buzzfeed’s homepage usually has several links to sponsored content. Today, a Spotify Canada promoted post was at the top. Clicking on it leads to a listicle of funny charts referencing popular songs of 2016. It looks and reads like a Buzzfeed article, except the byline is for Spotify Canada and the Spotify Facebook and Twitter feeds appear in the right column.

Looking at that article, it’s easy to imagine many hours spent coming up with an idea, writing the content, creating the graphics, getting the right approvals, and pressing publish on the sponsored post.

This scalability issue is why lots of people don’t think sponsored content is native advertising at all.

A common definition of native advertising is an ad that blends into its surroundings. Our CEO Todd Garland proposed this updated definition on Quora a few years ago:

A native ad is an ad that fits in with the existing user experience, and is available for advertisers to purchase at scale. It has similar (if not identical) attributes of the content that surrounds it, and it is clearly marked as “promoted” or “sponsored”.

Scalable native ads are found in many forms, although in-feed ads are the most popular. In native campaigns, advertisers provide publishers with a few metadata pieces before the ad can be served programmatically or otherwise. Native ads usually link to external websites, meaning the publisher isn’t responsible for the landing page experience. Plus, advertisers are free to use the creative on other sites, making the campaign scalable as well.

The Verge leverages both sponsored content and in-feed native ads on its website.

The sponsored content tile links to an article on The Verge paid for by Gillette. On the other hand, the in-feed native ad is formatted differently from organic articles and links to an external website.

The advertiser does most of the work for the in-feed ad, which is why this format is easy to scale. In this case, Vox Media provided The Verge with an image, headline, and destination URL. For the Gillette article, The Verge needed a writer, a designer, brand approval, and a custom display ad to scroll alongside the article.

Mistake 2: Not labeling native ads.

Native ads are meant to blend into their surroundings by mimicking the style of a publisher website. But many readers think publishers are taking it too far, leading to trust issues.

Part of the problem is a lack of consistent guidelines on labeling native ads.

Consider Twitter advertisements as one example. Most people probably wouldn’t recognize the difference between an organic or paid post while scrolling through their feed. The only qualifier is a small “promoted” badge at the bottom of the tweet.

Advertising groups say this badge isn’t enough to educate readers. The Federal Trade Commission says disclosures should be clear, close to the native ad, and in a shade that stands out. According to their guide, terminology like “Promoted” or “Sponsored” does not clearly communicate that it’s an advertisement. The Internet Advertising Bureau UK goes further in arguing the native ad should use different fonts and shading altogether.

These guidelines and recommendations have confused publishers for years. After all, how can a native ad provide a seamless user experience if publishers use different fonts and colors?

Reddit is a good example of how publishers can label native ads without cutting out the user experience benefits.

Reddit’s promoted posts appear in a different background color than organic posts and have “promoted” written twice on the ad. Skeptical readers can even hover over “what’s this” to learn more about Reddit’s advertising policies and self-serve tool.

Mistake 3: Serving readers irrelevant ads and spam.

Content recommendation widgets are the most common native ads on the internet today.

This is unfortunate, as these widgets often serve clickbait rather than relevant content—or even content that most publishers want to be associated with.

Even great publications can be burned by these native ads.

Time published an article on the briefcase holding control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. At the end of the article, readers see this “Sponsored Stories” box that blends in with the rest of the site.

Time has very little control over what appears in this box. However, any reader who finishes an article on their website will see the widget and its mystery soup of contents.

In many cases, these recommendation widgets make for a shocking user transition. These articles have little to do with user preference or the content they were reading, and the widgets are usually designed to lead readers down a spam trail.

Clicking the dental implant costing headline leads to a website with no information on the topic. Instead, there’s a list of keywords that lead to pages with embedded Google search results.

By installing this sponsored content widget, Time forfeited control of its brand image on valuable real estate and hurt user experience in the process. Now, many readers associate these ads with other content on Time, likely leading to a decline in brand trust.

Publishers need to provide relevant native ads to engage audiences and please advertisers.

Publishers know exactly who their audience is and what they’re interested in. This means it’s easy for publishers to work with advertisers to provide high-quality, relevant native ads rather than spam links or irrelevant info.

Digg is an aggregator of interesting things on the internet. It also commits to serving relevant native advertising to its audience.

Unlike publishers that install a widget and call it a day, Digg works with advertisers to share cool things that are valuable to its readers. This means consumers find actual benefit from ads, leading to optimal user experience.

The screenshots below show native advertisements on the Digg homepage and science category. The ads blend in with their surroundings with a different colored subhead to show they’re sponsored.

Left: Digg homepage with sponsored post. Right: sponsored post under “science” category.

Most importantly, the advertisements actually provide relevant information to Digg readers. The advertised compression pants are actually a form of wearable technology, an interesting topic to Digg’s audience. The second native ad links to a GE article on raising venture capital funds, which is relevant to science readers.

Notice how this contrasts with the Time model. Digg’s attention to its readers means advertisers and advertisements actually enhance the site rather than cluttering it. (For more on this distinction, read this Medium article on the power of influence)

Imagine how wonderful the Internet would be if everyone did this?

It doesn’t necessarily mean more work for the publisher’s sales team. Self-serve applications allow advertisers to build native campaigns themselves while still giving the publisher full insight into the ad copy, destination URL, and brand partner.

Mistake 4: Cluttering pages with native ads.

Publishers’ mantras should be quality over quantity when it comes to native ads.

Facebook adopted this mantra this year when it changed its newsfeed ranking to put a higher value on friends and family than pages. Facebook knows its first goal is to “create a feed that keeps people satisfied” because without people “ads don’t generate sales” (TechCrunch).

Publishers should take this lesson to heart as they implement native ads. Cluttering pages with ads creates a mess and frustrates the user experience. Take this screenshot from CNN as an example.

Publishers are used to cluttering pages with display ads to make more money, but native ads have to be treated differently.

People come to publisher websites to read organic content, which native ads blend into. Filling websites with native ads reduces opportunities for publishers to keep people on their websites, reducing their own share of voice and threatening user experience in the process.

Cramming tons of native ads into a page will also inevitably lead to the same banner blindness that display units suffer from. But now, publishers have more to lose because native ads blend into organic content. What would happen if people ignored everything on a publisher’s site because they thought it was an ad?

Publishers can use native ads to create great reader experiences… or really bad ones.

Publishers need to realize that their value is tied to their audience. If the readers leave, the site’s value goes with it.

Native advertising is a key way to improve user experience, which keeps readers coming back. To make these units work for publishers, readers, and advertisers alike, websites must create scalable units, label them clearly, ensure they provide value, and resist the urge to clutter the site.

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